Rescuers or Fanatics? The Dark Side of Animal Rescue

shutterstock_198695948Say the phrase "animal rescue" in any given circle of people and watch for a variety of reactions. Some people’s eyes will light up with hope and delight and others will start backing away with narrowing eyes, faces drawn with suspicion. The latter is unfortunate, but the truth cannot be denied that some of the most unstable portion of society seems to be drawn to this activity. Hoarders are the worst case scenario of this group, but emotions run high with rescuing animals, so it’s easy to be sucked into the drama that runs rampant.

Before I go much further, I want to make it clear that I am wholeheartedly a supporter of animal rescue. I personally ran my own Doberman rescue for 15 years. I got my start in dog behavior at a local animal shelter and am still considered a volunteer there. I currently volunteer behavior consult for a friend’s foster based rescue group. That entails providing behavior assistance to dogs in foster care as well as screening applications as needed. The group has a policy that requires modern rewards-based training be utilized on their dogs and enforces this post-adoption so it is my “job” to screen trainers and look for red flags on questionable applications. All but one of my dogs have come to me via rescue or shelter situations. I have many local and national friends who work in shelters as well as friends who participate in animal rescue both locally and all over the country. Rescue is in my blood.

So, this article is not about the responsible rescuers. Those rescuers work tirelessly day in and day out, saving animals without looking for kudos and without joining the dizzying array of fanatical social media discussions among a certain sect of “rescuers”. This article is about the irresponsible rescue practices that sadly are becoming more and more common.

One of the more repulsive ones is social media bashing frenzies against anyone that holds higher standards and practices responsible rescue and sheltering. Mention euthanasia for any reason, but in particular because of behavior issues in a dog, and “rescuers” come out of the woodwork, ready to converge upon the rescue or shelter in question with a vengeance that is frightening. When a shelter has to have police presence on their property because of the threats of “rescuers”, that’s when The Twilight Zone music should get cued. These actions alone can make so many people wary of those who participate in animal rescue. This behavior is often known in social media circles as “save all the furbabies syndrome”. You can read more on the subject of who should and shouldn’t be responsibly saved in a link contained further down in this article.

But it doesn’t end with threats to shelters and rescues who disagree with them. Anyone with any knowledge that supersedes their own small world is a target. They behave much like wild jackals descending on prey. If they spent even half of that energy properly screening homes and providing proper veterinary care for the animals in their care, the world would be a much better place. Instead they spend an inordinate amount of time on social media platforms making up stories about people they have never met, who might have disagreed with the information that they are sharing as facts. This is the kind of behavior that the general dog owning public at large sees as fanatical. This is also what drives people in droves to irresponsible breeders and puppy millers.

These are also typically the same type of personalities who will descend on someone who does something they disagree with that doesn’t affect them in any way. One frightening example is a case in my hometown last February where the director of a local humane society was viciously attacked on social media, to the extent of having a petition full of inaccuracies and false accusations leveled against her created. Her “crime”? Purchasing a responsibly bred puppy for her son, with the goal of that puppy being an emotional support animal for that child, who has since been officially diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. She is wholeheartedly a supporter of rescue and has two rescue dogs in her family, as well as a number of rescued horses. The decision to add a well-bred puppy was made for several reasons, among them being that one of her adult dogs only tolerates puppies as opposed to adult dogs. The other is that she needed to be relatively sure of the temperament of the dog that was to be assisting her son. I make these statements in the past tense because she returned the puppy to the breeder because she feared for her family’s safety. Yes, that is what I said. Some of the threats made against her were so serious that official harassment charges were brought against several people. You can read more about her plight here and here.

Blind breeder hate is another common theme among the fringe component of rescuers. After all, the mistaken impression that all breeders are responsible for shelter dogs' deaths is rampant, if untrue. More on this subject can be obtained in this article.

This is what can happen when crowd mentally bands together to “punish” a breeder for being a breeder. Proving that a dog legally belongs to one should result in getting the dog back, but this shows that many people don’t care who a dog belongs to. They act as judge and jury and claim that they know better as to whom should have a dog.

This brings me to the latest scenario that prompted this article. A local shelter that I volunteer at made the tough decision to euthanize a dog that had came through their doors several times and had been adopted out twice, with the same results. This shelter has a stellar behavior department, that I was once a part of. It is locally known that if a dog ends up here, that he or she will be given the best opportunities available, both medically and behaviorally. So when this shelter makes such a decision, it is not without having exhausted all other options, including the appropriateness of transferring a dog to quality interested rescue groups. Because the dog was a small breed, the outcry was even louder than a similar instance several years prior, over a large dog that killed another dog, meeting the same fate. False statements flew around social media, labeled as facts, local “rescuers” praising each other for their “knowledge” and loud voices, that were being used to do nothing but spread falsehoods and bully others who actually were in possession of real facts. Not only were the masses loudly heard spreading rumors, but they took to making threats against the shelter as well as anyone they thought even remotely associated with this decision. The masses slammed this wonderful shelter with so many negative reviews, that the supporting reviews are hard to find. For a frightening glimpse into the mind of the uninformed mob mentality that exists in extremist rescuers, feel free to read the reviews here. Sadly, there are no facts making an appearance in these words.

The decision to euthanize an animal available for adoption is a very individual one that should be based on many factors, which include possibility and probability of making behavioral changes in a shelter or rescue setting as well as what type of adopter such an animal needs and the safety of the public at large. For more on this subject, here is a previous article.

Can (and Should) Every Dog Be Saved?


Divisions are rampant among extremist “rescuers”. The trash talking is often viral and is not limited to breeders and just random people who disagree with them. They often target shelters of all types in addition to animal control facilities. The debate over open admission versus limited admission shelters leads to some heated exchanges where no one is the winner. Animal control facilities are often targeted if they don’t align themselves immediately with the rescue groups who are usually just randomly assembled with little thought or resources that go into caring for the animals that they claim to want to rescue.

In addition, if you have had the misfortune to have a dog get loose and go online for assistance in getting your dog back, be prepared to have to explain how you could possibly allow this to happen and that you are indeed a good dog parent and deserve to have your dog returned to you. I refer you back to the case of the breeder whose friend suffered a health issue and had the dogs get loose because of this. Judgments are rampant among this group and evidently nothing awry ever happens in their lives. In some cases, this kind of thought process can result in “rescuers” stealing dogs that are outside in yards or on tie-outs. I am absolutely not a supporter of dogs being left outside on their own but the law has requirements. Those requirements exist for a reason. Often that reason is because things are not as they appear to others and there is no cause for concern. Let a humane officer decide the difference.

In many cases this mentality leads to far too many animals in one home or facility where behavior problems can start to immediately surface because someone bit off more than they can chew, relying on the internet or television reality shows for their behavior information. Vetting can often be minimal and placements procedures are frightening and include the placement of intact animals that might also have undisclosed health issues.

It’s very easy to get sucked into the save them all mentality, especially when one first gets involved in rescue activities. Saying yes to things that more seasoned rescuers say no to is a hallmark of a newbie rescuer. Those who are mostly assisting as keyboard warriors will then see the extremists as the heroes, with little understanding on the actual facts of what is appropriate. They just know that a dog was “saved”. They know nothing of what happens after said dog is “saved”. This creates a reinforcement of the behavior of actions that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Each time the goalposts get moved out a bit further, so that incrementally it becomes easier to let guidelines slide “just this once”. People bite off more than they can chew, taking in too many animals without the resources to do so. The act of “rescue” then becomes a matter of commodities, which amount to animal flipping, with no regard to quality. It’s just a step closer to either a burnout for the “rescuer” or a tragedy for the animals in their care or both. This can often lead to these types of animal hoarding scenarios.

Animal hoarding is the subject of this study here.

These are not the rescuers that are checking your criminal record or even your veterinary care history should you already have animals in your care. Adopting from the fanatical fringe is sadly easier than adopting from a responsible rescue group or shelter. The goalposts have already been moved, if they existed in the first place. Which is frightening for the animals in their care. Responsibly operated rescues and shelters thoroughly screen potential adopters not only for the best possible match for the animal in question, but for a history that might be a red flag, such as certain criminal charges as well as a poor history of veterinary care for past animals in their care. But if you want any animal from the rescue fanatical fringe, all you need to do is comment on a public Facebook post or in an animal rescue Facebook group. Arrangements are then made to meet someone somewhere and have that animal handed over to you in some parking lot. It’s that easy in many cases.

This works out when the person in question is more responsible than the “rescuer”. In other cases, animals get passed around from person to person and get more stressed with each change of scene, culminating in a serious behavior issue that the final destination is ill equipped to handle. Then if they are even more unlucky, they get handed off to someone who claims to “rehab” dogs, only to suffer the fate of forceful old fashioned methods being foisted upon them. Read more on the subject of rescue groups and behavior knowledge here.

Don’t Do Me Wrong: Rescue Groups and Dog Behavior Knowledge


A related issue is the lack of actual background information that is passed on to well-intentioned adopters. Past bite histories are typically required by law to be communicated to anyone taking on a dog. But those wishing to “save all the furbabies” conveniently leave information like that out of the equation, knowing that many people aren’t looking for a project dog.  This can place not only the adopter in a precarious position but also the neighborhood at large, depending on the bite in question.

Irresponsibly done rescue and sheltering is everyone’s problem, not just those that the extremists target for their ire. The tactics that rescuers who are on the fringe use affect every pet-loving person out there, whether it be as members of a community where a dangerously misrepresented dog (either temperament or lack of proper vetting) has been placed, or as someone looking to acquire an animal via rescue who is uncomfortable with the actions of the rescuers that they have been exposed to. This leads to more support of backyard bred dogs and puppy millers.  That is not the direction that we as savvy dog parents and dog lovers should want to take. Education is crucial to more responsible dog parenting overall. The public at large should be looking towards credible sources for their education rather than having to be bombarded with the images of the fringe rescue movement that leads so many innocent dog lovers to deem as the norm. It isn’t the norm. At some points the state laws need adjusted so that some if not all of these practices have consequences.

Additionally, it the duty of everyone to stand up to bullying behavior on the internet and let your rational voices be heard. It is only with a solidly knit common sense community that won’t stand for these travesties that the extremist behavior can be reduced and eliminated. Be the responsible change you want to see in the world.

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Victoria Stilwell. 

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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


17 thoughts on “Rescuers or Fanatics? The Dark Side of Animal Rescue

  1. Charise Bell

    Thank you for this brave post. I'll risk my budding career as a dog trainer by agreeing that there are some pretty forceful elements in rescue that hurt good rescue groups if only by association. This has been happening in Dallas.
    A lot of the problems are driven by an appalling lack of knowledge about the science of behavior combined with strong beliefs about dogs that have no basis in fact. I am so grateful for people like you who are willing to tell it like it is.
    Check out Karen Deeds, CDBC, of Canine Connection in Fort Worth. She has been presenting a program called "In Whose Best Interest" that is designed to guide hard decisions about helping dogs who are having difficulty living with humans.
    Again, thank you!

  2. belowzero

    Excellent post! I was targeted by a nationally known (dare I say "militant") animal rescue and advocacy group. My crime in their eyes? I dared to post photos on my business facebook page from a large scale animal adoption event that happened in my community. This adoption event was the happy ending that resulted from stopping one of the worst hoarding situtations ever to happen in my state. The venom and hatred from those who defended the hoarders was unbelievable. If these people could have spent one day at the hoarding location from where the animals were taken into custody by law enforcement, they would most certainly have had a different attitude. But they took their marching orders to "bash and crash" from their influential and charismatic leader who based her accusations soley on various misleading and erroneous facebook posts by people she did not personally know. It's really sad what has happened in the animal rescue world. Thank you bringing some much needed awareness to this issue.

  3. Terri Lewin

    I had a woman pull out of traffic in Bloomfield last night and roll down her window to talk to me. She asked what breed of dog I had (not weird, he's a Keeshond, not common), told me he was cute, and then asked if I got him from a breeder. I said yes, I purchased him from a responsible breeder. That's when the bait-and-shame started and she launched into a tirade about shelter animals. I wanted to scream- I've been involved in animal rescue since I could pay my way in the world, I have 3 shelter cats at home. It's really sad that you can't even take your dog for a walk without some nutjob pulling their car over to shout at you. It is possible to own a purebred dog and support shelters/rescues at the same time.

  4. Debby

    I am so sorry that this happened to you. This is exactly the mindset that I wrote about. Shame on that woman.

  5. Heather Skelly

    Great post. I adopted my daughter from China. I could have gone to all my pregnant friends and called them selfish for getting pregnant and not adopting. As if them getting pregnant is the cause of other children being orphaned. But who in their right mind would ever think they have the right to be judge and jury over other people's decisions. Families come together in many different ways. If you decide to adopt a dog from a shelter or a breeder, that dog still needs a home.

  6. Lisa

    What's funny is there's so many nutcases in Rescue that I'm sure every single one of the 'bad ones' will claim they are ever so 'Responsible'.

  7. HarveMorgan

    You tiptoed around the cause of all this, the No Kill movement. I've been in rescue for over 50 years, had a sanctuary as a teen because we had no animal control. It was a trip to the landfill and a five cent bullet if a stray came around. When No Kill appeared, I saw the changes that you talk about. No Kill gave and gives these types credibility with the "saving them all" rhetoric. When No Kill appeared on the scene, I predicted this outcome and it came true. You can't work the field for years to not see how this movement has destroyed all we worked for for decades. The emphasis has been taken away from the true solution to the overpopulation problem - spay/neuter. No Kill doesn't support s/n, they give it lip service only. Don't argue with me on that point, I have far too many examples. We need laws now to regulate our industry because we have failed to police ourselves.

  8. Debby

    You make a statement and then you tell me not to argue with you. Well, sorry, I'm going to point out that I didn't tippy toe at all around the no-kill movement. In fact, I posted a link to another article I wrote about not saving them all. I guess I'm not sure how much clearer that I have to make it. The article isn't about the no-kill movement. That is a huge part of the problem but it's not just that. So if you see that as tippy-toeing around it, that's certainly your prerogative but again, I've made it quite clear that I'm not a fan of that mentality. And that definitely is huge part of the problem as I have stated within the article. Attacking the cause as the main point of the article isn't really going to get anyone to listen any better. You are of course free to write your own article about the no kill movement in particular.

  9. Erin Riley

    Not my own personal experience, but I have had people I know have to relinquish their beloved pets due to circumstances far beyond their control. The amount shaming these people have to endure when they try to give up their pet responsibly is so excruciating. I see "rescuers" having Facebook conversations on their pages mocking and belittling these poor people. I am not talking about serial adopters - I am talking about people who have been dedicated pet owners who have had a crisis in their life who are trying to do the right thing and not dump their pet. It is inexcusable - rescue must have the same compassion for the humans as they do the pets.

  10. Erinz

    I've been trying to find a dog to adopt for months and have had no success, even though I am in my mid-forties, have had dogs all of my life, and am willing to take breeds like pit bulls that are difficult to adopt out. My problem is that, in addition to an adult, neutered Golden Retriever (rescued from a puppy mill-type situation by my son's then-girlfriend, now fiance, and entrusted to me when they went to college and she couldn't take him), I also have two cats, and an unfenced yard. It doesn't seem to matter that I've brought adult dogs into my home and successfully integrated them with cats many times so I understand that challenge of doing so properly and the warning signs that it won't work, or that both of my cats have been around dogs all their lives and are completely unfazed by them, or that I live in the country on five wooded acres at the end of an unpaved, one lane, dead end road, rendering a fence not only unnecessary, but also damn near impossible because of all the tree roots. I understand and appreciate that shelters have standards, but refusing to even consider my applications for these reasons is absurd. They'd rather keep them caged than use some common sense and allow some wiggle room in their adoption requirement.

  11. Mary S. Cox

    Great. Having rescued Schipperkes for 25 yrs, I have encountered all of the above. The internet trollers who MUST save all are frustrating. Not all can be saved and dangerous dogs do NOT need to be adopted. Legal and insurance and lawsuits will soon become the norm for these groups. It does make legitimate rescue groups uncomfortable.

  12. Hannahoneybee

    It seems as if anyone can just start a "rescue" and then begin hoarding dogs. They don't have to have any specific breed knowledge or safety precautions in place, and no one is inspecting these rescues. Today I read about one rescue that seemed to be completely made up. The guy took (only dangerous) dogs and then they were gone. He got plenty of donations. People were leaving him money in their wills to care for their animals when they died. He may have been a fraud. It's being investigated now. Considering that dogs labeled dangerous with a known bite history are often part of a "rescue/rehab" situation, there needs to be more regulations and concern for public safety.

  13. Susan Brown

    I'm in a situation, I will never foster again from these self proclaimed rescuers. I agreed to take a cat as a Foster for 2 weeks, big mistake. Not the cat, the rescuers are the problem. This cat is about 2 and large he is terrified after being in a kill shelter and an owner surrender. So he hides I looked can not find him. I have 2 cats of my own a siamese adopted from the shelter who is 16 months and a 4 year old tabby. My Siamese hid when he came to me last August. I left him alone and one day he came down. They wanted to send somebody here to help me look. On a facebook group they called me elderly I am 68 but get around very well. Now these well meaning people who I think are doing more damage to this cat. By the way I am the second Foster. Now they want to take him again to a third foster whom they haven't gotten yet. My idea is contrary to theirs leave him alone, let him come out in his own time he will be more settled and then you can take him to the vet. Thats what i did when my siamese came out i made a vet appointment and picked him up one morning and we went to the vet. I wonder if these rescues actually have the animal best interest in mind or their own.

  14. Deborah Hinckley

    I rescued my only dog from a true animal shelter. he was 9 months old when i adopted him. he lived to be 14 years old the day that i made the decision to have him put down so he wouldn't have to suffer. i finally had the courage this january after ten years had passed to seriously think about getting another dog....the way that i was talked to (because i had some questions and concerns) i have come to the conclusion i will never get another dog and if i do i'll go to a breeder instead of adopting. i was told i was "elderly and feeble" because i'm 51 (if you're that age you automatically are feeble). i was poor and lazy because i choose to live in an apartment instead of a house. i was dirty or hoarded animals because i am concerned for my safety and having strangers "inspecting" my home (i don't know these people and i don't know if they're going to break into my home later on, hence my concern). i was stupid, because i was asked what breed i was interested in and when i told them was informed that i needed to do my research on them and how they're high energy dogs and you MUST have a fenced in yard...which one, i grew up with the breed in question and two even the AKC does not recognize that they are a "high energy" dog. they're standards for this breed are moderate to high energy (and again i have first hand knowledge about the breed). the rescue sites in my area talk about the "horrors" that they've seen. but the reality is they've NEVER been outside of a shelter themselves as they tend to take all the "cute" non pit bull or pit bull mixes, so they can charge twice as much as what the shelters do. my biggest question to them when does it become an invasion of MY privacy when they talk about going to the municipal and federal court houses to view your arrest record (if you have one..i don't but its one of my questions) and a copy of my driver's no i don't need you stealing my identity... i think most of these rescues sites forget its a DOG. not a human child. if you're lucky you'll have a dog that lives with you for close to 14 years (minus the 9 months before i met him). but the reality is if you're into large breed dogs (like i am) then you'll be lucky to have them for 10-12 years.

  15. Scott

    I have found that accountability is a problem with the nonprofit rescues. At the end of my first puppy foster I was so bonded with one I literally could not let her go. She had become my emotional support dog who had been changing me. Nobody told me about the end of the fostering and the emotions of giving the dog away. At 9 weeks I was told to take the pup to PetSmart and meet a person there who will try to get her adopted. They knew how much I wanted to adopt her and the reasons why. I already adopted my Nyles from them and there was plenty of room ect. so I thought for sure I’d get her. I didn’t want to take her anywhere to get adopted. I pleaded with them but to no avail. The stress , anxiety, fear, ect were high and I panicked and said I’m going to keep her. They showed up with the police who eventually said that this was a civil matter and they left and I kept the pup. After 2 days my reasoning and conscious spurred me to re turn the pup. What the rescue did after that was dispicable. The founder of the rescue told people that I tried to steal the puppy. She kicked me out of the group and blocked me. The puppy got adopted 2 days later. The founder told the new family that I tried to steal the puppy so they didn’t post a picture of them on their site. I went to other pet sites to try to find my foster puppy and the new family. I wanted them to know that I didn’t try to steal the puppy and that my family are good people who only want to stay in touch and maybe have play dates with our Nyles. The founder of the rescue has long a long reach and immediately comments on my post “you tried to steal Daphne” and then deletes my post and blocks me from THAT room. She is a mean spirited person. The emotions are unbelievability raw and I can find no recourse at all. Unbelievably frustrating. I’m a 60 yr old disabled vet who doesnt give much of a crap anymore since this…….street justice is still an option. She has been very cruel. She messaged my wife saying that I am a theif and that I use my Veterans disability status to steal. She went on like a child saying disparaging things about me. I have all the messages saved. I’ve been blackballed and cast out.
    I would have thought that an organization that is known for how much they care about animals and know how strong the feelings can be after 8 weeks raising a puppy from 5 days old and have a much better approach to dealing with those of us who have had a hard time of letting go of our foster pups instead of going all dysfunctional on us. I continue to search for Daphne.

  16. Tricia Ouellette

    100% agree with the Author! My experience involved a woman who runs a Bernese Mtn Dog Rescue in Fort St John, BC but she also looks at feral cats as rescues.
    The lady is a complete wack job and I truly believe she has Borderline Personality Disorder.
    I donated hundreds of dollars to her rescue as she was always advertising on Facebook about her predicaments involving her Berners and the feral cats.
    It soon became apparent to me, that lest you agree with absolutely everything she says and posts and may God forbid should you disagree with her, she will practically put a hit on you as if she was a member of the Gambino Family.
    One critical comment meant that I as a donor was then a target of a smear campaign.
    Unfortunately, now I will only donate to the BCSPCA, all other rescues can forget about thanks to the founder of the Bernese Mountain Dog Rescue in Fort St. John, BC.

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